Hi Film Folk!
The Film Doctor Team have decided to kick off the New Year with a bang by adding to our In Conversation series. This time we had a chat with the seasoned comedy screenwriter behind many-times-made Death at a Funeral, sitcom Off the Hook and the newly released A Few Best Men.
Sit back, relax and enjoy our conversation with the wonderful Dean Craig.
How did you start out? How did you get here from there?
I started out by taking any jobs I could find in the film industry, at first working for free doing some pretty awful jobs. Then I got into script reading and editing, which I ended up doing for most of the major UK film companies, and which taught me a huge amount about screenplay structure and why a script does or doesn’t work. Then when I was about 28, I felt ready to start life as a screenwriter, and wrote my first film, CAFFEINE, which was picked up and shot in Los Angeles in 2005.
What is your writing process? E.g. scribbles on napkins, wall charts, index cards, post-its; organized or messy genius?
If I have a writing process, I’m not really sure what it is. There’s the general work of coming up with good characters, story ideas, but it’s really once I have some kind of premise or setting that I can start arranging everything into a structure. Then at a certain point I kind of disappear into it, and neglect everything else in my life for a while.
When and where do you write?
I normally sit with my lap top in cafes. Too much time alone in my office and I start going weird.
Does your writing process vary from feature to feature?
Yes. Some scripts require research, some come from character, or from a storyline. Commissions are completely different from original scripts, or adaptations. It’s whatever feels right for that particular project, and it also depends also who I’m working with and how involved they are or want to be.
What main differences did you find between film work and TV series?
In particular the speed. Films can take years to come to fruition. But with my BBC series Off The Hook, for example, we got the go ahead to make the series, and suddenly we were about to shoot it and I had to write 6 episodes in 6 weeks… In America, it’s even more stark. The general rule is that you pitch an idea to the networks, and if they buy it you write it, and if they don’t then it’s dead. Totally different to film, which you can keep slogging away at ad nauseum and beyond.
How important are other people in the development and process of your work? And at what stages?
Other people are incredibly important in the process, especially producers and directors. They can help you get your script beyond what you think you could do yourself, and keep things on track and moving forward, and pull you through on days when you feel like you’d rather die than look at that script for another second … On the other hand, producers and directors can also make your script worse and make everything ten times harder.
How have the processes of working with (or not working with) the director on Caffeine, the two Death at a Funerals and A Few Best Men been? Have you found a preference?
The process is different with every director. You’re dealing with personalities, and often very big personalities, and so your connection with each person is different, as well as their process of working… In some instances, I’ve worked with people who are from a completely different world to me and turn out to have entirely different ideas about what the film actually is that we’re making. That can add substance, but it can also be painful, especially when you’re dealing with comedy and the margins between something being funny or unfunny are so minuscule… As the screenwriter and creator, you see the work as your creative baby, and naturally feel protective over it. But the director has ultimate control and it’s really his (or her) film in the end. It even says so in the credits!… But director experiences can of course be positive as well. When I was doing the original Death At A Funeral, the director, Frank Oz, said to me that he didn’t want to change a single thing in the script, which is like music to a screenwriter’s ears… Of course he did change things, and in many instances made them better. But he went into it with an attitude that the quality of the film would come first above any other considerations, including his own ego. And he had the confidence and experience to know when’s something’s working or not working… You don’t get that every time.
How did ‘A Few Best Men’ come about? What made you decide to create a UK-AUS project rather than just UK?
When we first went out with the script for A Few Best Men in 2009 (bearing in mind I’d been writing it on and off since 2005), we had a conference call and I remember my agent saying “have you heard of this film, The Hangover“? I hadn’t heard of it, but it became apparent that there were a few notable similarities, so when I eventually went to see The Hangover I was the only person sitting in the cinema not laughing but crying instead.… I took out some things that were too similar, but I couldn’t really change the fact that this was a film about four friends and a wedding, and the after effects of their drinking the night before. Something dramatic had to be changed in the script to help differentiate it… I’ve always loved Australia and we’d had a huge success with Death at a Funeral in Australia where it was number one at the box office for several weeks, so setting it there and developing this sense of a UK/Australian culture clash seemed like it could provide a good back drop to the story, and that people wouldn’t necessarily jump to the Hangover comparisons so much… I was wrong about the second part. In marketing the film, they often even called it the British/Australian Hangover!
What is the one dominant mantra you would offer to anybody thinking about achieving what you’ve achieved?
Find your voice as a writer – work out what you do that’s different – then focus a hundred percent of your energy on getting that first film made… And then very quickly develop a thick skin.
So what’s next? ‘Florence of Arabia’? What can you tell us and how did it come about?
This is a film that I’ve been developing with HBO for Charlize Theron to star in and produce. Charlize had optioned the rights to the novel, which was written by the American satirist, Christopher Buckley. I happened to have read it, and Charlize turned out to be a fan of the original version of Death at a Funeral. So I pitched her my take and she hired me. And then we took it to HBO, which I think is the perfect home for this project… As I write this we’re about to go out to directors, so I’m excited to see what happens next.